News broke last week that Chinese hackers had compromised computer databases belonging to the Office of Personnel Management. On the surface, reports of the Obama administration scrambling to contain the damage done by having this information exposed may not make sense. Is it really that big a deal if the Chinese stole lists of government employees? It is when the list is of Americans with top-secret security clearances. According to SOFREP sources, it isn’t just benign human-resources-type information that was stolen, but also lists of active CIA personnel and information pertaining to front companies used as commercial cover by the same agency.

State-sponsored Chinese hackers have been breaking into American computer networks for decades now, with the information stolen usually being attributed by the press as being information gathered for identity theft, fraud, or in some cases, industrial espionage. No big deal if some Americans lose money from their bank accounts, after all it is insured by the federal government. The damage done by industrial espionage is not readily apparent either, since it will be years until we see Chinese stealth fighters developed with stolen American technology.

By hacking into American computer systems over and over again, the People’s Republic of China has probed our defenses to assess what the U.S. government will do in response to cyber-intrusions. The answer? Not a damn thing. We will not respond to cyber attacks with cyber-retaliation, military force, economic sanctions, or even sternly worded diplomatic letters. We probably should have unrolled the red carpet for China’s hackers and told them that we are just fine with them stealing our data. Our limp-wristed politicians are too afraid of upsetting our economic relations with China to do anything about it.

But the reality is that China’s hackers are not stealing personal identification information from police departments, large corporations, and the federal government for purposes of committing fraud. The real reason is far more insidious. This is actually the information-gathering process the Chinese are conducting as a part of what the U.S. military would call operational preparation of the environment (OPE) also known as operational preparation of the battlespace (OPB).

OPE is setting the conditions for success prior to the initiation of open military hostilities between two belligerent nations who plan to go to war. More specifically, OPE entails sending in intelligence service personnel to recruit rings of spies, burying caches of weapons and equipment, and developing targeting information for people and critical infrastructure. Operational preparation of the environment could even include assassinating key personalities in order to remove them prior to D-Day in a war that hasn’t happened yet.

China’s hackers are, in fact, conducting OPE—preparing the battlefield for a war that has not happened yet. To understand why, you have to first understand China’s strategy.

China’s strategy

The Chinese government has deceived the Western world into believing that they are a friend and ally, one that will eventually transition into a democratic state. The reality is that China fully intends to surpass the United States economically, and then militarily. They also have no interest in becoming a democracy. The PRC’s long-term goal is to become a Ba, which translates as “tyrant.” More accurately, they wish to become a hegemon. While China makes overtures of integrating into the existing global order, the truth is that China seeks to become a revisionist power. Revealing this strategy now would be devastating, as it could lead to an open military confrontation with the West, “unraveling years of patient assiduous efforts to build China into a economical and geopolitical hegemon” (Pillsbury, 136).

Humiliations at the hands of the West still burn deep with China’s hawks, the ying pai. These feelings of humiliation and nationalism have motivated them to develop an anti-Western doctrine, humorously enough based around the writings of people like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley (Pillsbury, 18). These Chinese elites are said to refer to the ancient proverb, tao guang yang hui, which means to bide your time and build your capabilities. However, another translation is, “overturning the old hegemon and exacting revenge” (Pillsbury, 33).